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Companies like to tell you they’re one big family.

At the James Hotel, that’s pretty spot-on.

A few years ago, a string of the Chicago hotel’s employees were struggling to stay afloat. Jeff Hemmings, a server at David Burke’s Primehouse, a restaurant at the hotel, was diagnosed with cancer in 2009. His co-workers put together a fundraiser to pitch in for medical bills.

Not long after, lobby coordinator Scott Copeland’s apartment was destroyed by a four-alarm fire. And again, James employees organized a fundraiser, pulled out their wallets and helped Copeland get back on his feet.

Which gave him an idea.

“I said, ‘What’s a better way to still help our employees but not necessarily have to go through all the work into planning benefits and getting donations?’” Copeland says.

He proposed a direct deposit program, in which employees could donate money pretax from their paychecks. Copeland named it the Hemmings Fund after Jeff, who died in 2010.

More companies are establishing employee relief funds, in part because technology has simplified the giving process, says Doug Stockham, executive vice president of the nonprofit Emergency Assistance Foundation, which helps companies set up employee funds.

“If you [look at] a fund that’s done properly, then you’re donating just like you are to the Red Cross or United Way. But somebody in the room is going to be the beneficiary. And it might be you,” Stockham says.

Yet it’s still unlikely that workers themselves will ask an employer to set up a relief fund.

Most emergency programs are created after a natural disaster or by senior management, according to a new survey sponsored by the Emergency Assistance Foundation. Only 12 percent of the funds are suggested by employees.

“Let’s say you have some illness that’s not covered by your insurance and it’s a lot of money — it’s particularly a lot of money for you if you don’t make a lot. How do you deal with it?” Stockham says. “[Emergency funds are] a big way to address that. So to the extent employees can get some help and get on their feet, they can actually get back to work sooner.”

In terms of what management at the James has to do to keep the fund functioning, it’s not much, says Claudia Parulo, regional director of human resources. The company set up an automatic payroll deduction, drew up a form employees could use to opt in or out of donations, and set up a committee to decide how to allocate funds — using email instead of meetings to save employees’ on-the-clock hours. The Hemmings Fund has doled out around $14,000 in grants.

About 50 of the hotel’s 290 workers are signed up to donate to the fund — with contributions of anywhere from a dollar on up. The program has also spread to the hotel’s Miami location, the James Royal Palm.

More than 10 employees have asked for assistance since the program began. One received money to have the gas turned back on; another needed help to purchase a flight to Mexico to care for an ailing parent.

Employees seeking assistance fill out a confidential form that outlines what they need and why, which is then circulated among the committee. The committee decides if the fund can donate the amount requested (or even more), and gives accounting the go-ahead to cut a check.

“We’ve never decided against giving something,” Parulo says. “They’re real hardships. People are too humble to ask for just anything.”

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